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Semeijn, M.

Department of Theoretical Philosophy

Fictional interaction

A new account of the role of pretend play in theory of mind acquisition

Around the age of two children start to engage in a peculiar type of entertaining games; they organize cosy tea-parties with stuffed animals as visitors, pretend to bathe a doll playing mother and father, or occupy a couch as their pirate ship. These are instances of ‘pretend play’, a kind of acting as if something is the case while correctly perceiving it is not. Pretend play is generally considered to be a developmental landmark in theory of mind acquisition, or the ability to represent another’s mental states (e.g. beliefs, desires, intentions). This is because children are commonly taken to have acquired a theory of mind when they pass false belief tests (i.e. tests that require the child to predict another’s behaviour based on a belief that the child himself recognizes to be false) and pretend play requires children to anticipate behaviour of playmates that is also based on false (pretend-)beliefs. Paradoxically, whereas the ability to pass false belief tests emerges at the age of four, pretend play emerges at the much earlier age of two. This conundrum has sparked a debate among developmental psychologists Leslie, Perner and Harris on the role of pretend play in theory of mind acquisition. In my master thesis I propose an alternative account that is inspired by Matravers’ recent argument in the philosophy of fiction and Hutto and Gallagher’s developmental account of social cognition. The key contribution of my account is an analysis of pretend play as fictional interaction involving social embodied cognition, which enables children to directly perceive and react to the pretend-intentions of others.

Last modified:09 February 2017 3.22 p.m.